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(A Sunday School Lesson from St. John the Divine, Houston Texas, 15 August 2010–the Feast of St. Mary the Virgin)

Luke 18: 1-14 (ESV) The Persistent Widow and the Unjust Judge, and The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. 2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. 3 And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’4 For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’” 6 And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. 7 And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? 8 I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” 9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.

This summer during my travels I stumbled across an inscription that C. S. Lewis once wrote in a copy of The Great Divorce. In the front pages, Lewis inscribed the following quote: “There are three images in my mind which I must continually forsake and replace by better ones: the false image of God, the false image of my neighbours, and the false image of myself.” Let me boldly suggest that these two parables before us offer nothing so much as a cure for an idolatry that runs rampant in our day. In our church. In, quite likely, that seat in which you are beginning to squirm. Yep—I just called us all idol-worshipers. Yes, I shall excuse you to go to lunch now—you may not like what you are about to hear.

These then are the Two Great Corrective Parables, which teach us two VITALLY important lessons: 1) how to live out the Two Great Commandments (to love God and to love our neighbors) and 2) how to correct or cast down our false images, the idols we make out of our image of God, our image of ourselves, and our image of our neighbor. Let me offer you a way in by asking one question: How do you see God?

This first parable helps us correct our false image of God. How do you see him? I sometimes think and act as if He is cruel that he will not graciously give me all good things. That the things that sometimes happen to me He intends for anything but my good. But that must be a lie–EVERYTHING in my life must be a tool in God’s own hand that he uses masterfully to craft that good thing only He can see and make in me. Does that sound glib? Does that fly in the face of the incredible difficulties you may face, of which I surely can know nothing? Of course it does. But swallow hard and accept it anyway. If I read the scriptures correctly, God tells us to give thanks in all circumstances, to apply the shield of faith in all circumstances (and surely the two are related, if not actually the same thing?). Let me dispel some lingering lies that may be lurking in your heart. God is not cruel. God is not deaf to your cries. He hears you and hastens to answer, and the only thing that stays His hand from giving him what you ask for is that He knows that sometimes what we ask for is nowhere near what we need. The Scriptures promise the He will graciously give us all good things. How do you see God?

If you have all that you could want and more—or even if you have enough, remember that these are gifts…they do not have a PRICE tag, as we’ll soon see, but they do have a NAME tag, just like a Christmas present. Would you think me rude and meddling if I reminded you that most of you can see and hear? And that we should thank God for all good things? You often hear the phrase or, I dare say, feel the sentiment “Why are bad things happening to good people” which often means “Why don’t better things happen to ME?” Let me challenge you to ask this question: “why do good things happen to any of us?” Like LUNCH. Like air conditioning, like telephones, like laughter, like silence, like prayer—no mats nor minarets, but the name of our God given to us and the challenge to come boldly before him ever ringing in our ears.

For we have no unjust Judge. We have a Judge who declares us guilty and then sends his Son to torturous death to atone for our crimes, who opens the door and sets us free. So I ask you again—how do you see God? Do you realize that it’s His kindness that leads to repentance? What false image do you need to let go?

And let’s put to rest once and for all the foolish, ignorant, even hateful notion that there’s ANY difference between the God of the Hebrew Scriptures and to God of the New Testament. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that if you want to understand the loving-kindness, the gentleness and solicitousness, of God, you should FLY to the Psalms—for there in the Hebrew scriptures you’ll find God’s long-suffering tenderness to us, and Him rejoicing over us with singing and carving our names on His palms of His hands. Give me that God, please! Here’s just one example of what I’m talking about, from Psalm 103:

8 The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
9 He will not always chide,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
10 He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
12 as far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
13 As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.
14 For he knows our frame;
he remembers that we are dust.

God as he reveals himself in the Hebrew scripture looks little like that Unjust Judge of the parable. But I fear that our idolatrous icon of Him does. In His hands are all good things, and He delights to give them to His children. He has not treated us according to our sings, but according to His great mercy.

You can by now surely see as we move from the parable of the Just Judge (!) to the tax-collector and the Pharisee that I’m going to keep messing with you with one more question: How do you see your neighbor?

Do you compare yourself to others? Or let me put it this way: why do you compare yourself to others (cause we all do it!)? Jesus said “the least of these.” Jesus said to take compassion on those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, in prison, homeless. Mother Teresa (how I’m growing to love her) says, “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.” Do you see yourself in your neighbor? Do you see the face of Christ, someone God loves as much as he loves you? Ahh—there’s the rub, isn’t it? How easy it is for me to think myself even a very little bit better, more gifted, more in favor. And pride creeps in and carries me away, and I’m a thousand miles out of earshot of the voice of God, calling me to love my neighbor. And make no mistake—groveling about how awful and terrible I am is simply a twisted form of pride: “God declared me important enough to die for, but He MUST be mistaken—I’m a worm!” Baloney. Loving our neighbor, really (if not THINKING good of them) DOING good for them forces our false image, our idol, of our neighbor to to crumble.

And of course you see me rounding for home, for to do any of these things, I need to forsake and replace my false image of myself. Sinful? Certainly. Blessed and gifted? No question. Of infinite importance? It must be true if the Cross means ANYTHING at all. But important only in the exact proportion to how I surrender myself and collapse on Christ. In HIM (and only in Him) we live and move and have our being. Hallelujah, we are ourselves, and mercy prevails through my foolishness and frailty. How do you see yourself? Remember that appalling verse—His power is made perfect in our WEAKNESS. Remember the parable—whoever exalts himself will be humbled—but DON’T forget the corollary—whoever humbles himself will be exalted. At first, I only humble myself for the sake of future glory—but that’s good enough for God to get started. Soon he will make me gloriously myself, and wholly dependent on Him, and devoted to showing the kindness of God to all of my neighbors.

Now. One more question. TODAY, at work, at school, in an airplane, wherever—how will you forsake your false images? Let this question ring in your ears throughout your week—how will you then live if all these things are true—what will YOU do differently tomorrow if you see God, your neighbor, and yourself more correctly? Go—GO in peace to love and serve the Lord.

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…the day that You abandoned us, leaving this world God-haunted. I know the Holy Ghost comes as a Comforter, leading us into all truth. But I must admit this truth leaves me as cold as the presence of Your absence in this world. You went away. You left us here, to muddle through as best we can. And we have yet to find You fully, and all too many mornings it feels I’m merely making it all up over and over again.

In The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis unfathomably calls this loss “the ultimate law,” claiming that things will only live for us once we abandon them, that the very lack of a thing gives rise to a longing which calls us out of ourselves, and only there will we find ourselves, along with all we long for, thrown in. He names this thing “Joy,” though I must admit I’ve never felt at all sure why, for this painful stab seems mostly to show us not much more than how alone we are.

And, truth be told, we are so alone. Perhaps the candles that we kindle, all the songs we sing, perhaps these acts of worship that all too often lapse into going through the motions are just that and nothing more. He has left us SO alone.

What then? Sleep in on Sabbath, cast it all aside as if alone is all our story? I hope to God that even still, I’m not that kind of fool–not yet, at least. For in the heart of emptiness, of pangs of longing piercing us we hear, down in the deep heart’s core that there is more, much more, yes so much more than all this emptiness.

For all of this alone, this waiting room will surely point (once we peer into it) to truth that will transform us if we let it. This room of empty waiting shouts aloud to those with ears to hear that we are here alone but for a season, so that we will look outside and find all that we’re waiting for is brimming, just next door, and surely coming back to claim us all.

And so, for me, today, the only point in all of this alone He left behind is this one fact that yanks it into clarity, to finally making sense:

He shall return.

For surely here in this God-haunted world we read the very opposite of all the old ghost-stories. For surely here the Holy Ghost does many things, but maybe most of all He points us towards those days when Ghosts come back to life, take on new flesh, join bone to bone, when faith will finally wake to glorious sight and we shall finally, fully see and know, not now as through a darkened glass.

So go, Lord, go ahead, ascend, go leave us and then send the Holy Ghost, by whom we lean our lives all on this promise: You shall surely come again.

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A number of my friends are going through some really difficult times. And I’ve had my share of late. These thoughts came up–sorry if they sound preachy. If they do, rest assured I’m preaching mostly to myself.

They say weeping may last the night, but joy cometh in the morning. True, and one of the only reasons to wake up and try again. But they never tell you that along with joy you still have to put up with puffy eyes.

Pain often infuses the path of this life; surely God knows this, for why else would He describe Heaven as the place where He wipes away all our tears? We all like Odysseus sit sometimes by the side of the sea with salt-rimmed eyes. God haste the day we wake up on the farther side of that shore and find we have, we are, all we need. And God help us somehow see that shore even today.

Perhaps, just perhaps, the visions of Heaven we find in the Scriptures and feel (sometimes) in our hearts are simply picture-postcards: “the weather is fine; wish you were here” maybe translates loosely into “all manner of things shall be well” and “even so, come Lord Jesus!” So today we struggle to agree with John and Julian.

A friend recently noted that weeping precedes resurrection, at least in Jesus’ life. Feeling deep despair comes at the verge of new life sweeping in, taking us by surprise, and catching us all off our guard.

And so as we pick our imperfect way through the rest of this Lent, maybe we might try to embody once more some of the paradoxes of our faith–we put ashes on our heads and think of the death of the body as spring bursts forth all around us. We mourn, though not as those without hope. We give thanks in ALL circumstances. And we weep through the night, and wait, puffy-eyed, for steadfast love, and new mercies every morning.

Lift up your weary heads, friends, if only for a moment (or a few moments at a time). Look to the hills. Help comes from on high. Remember that old prayer found in many traditions, “Oh God make speed to save us, Oh Lord make haste to help us.” How refreshing, because it says essentially what so many of us cry as we wrestle with our angels in the dark: “Hey God? Hurry UP!”

Keep crying. Run to the strong tower of the Name of the Lord. Grapple, give up, and then stumble to your feet and try again, a weather eye to the hills whence help comes. And let the tears fall, for none are in vain, and God catches them all and treasures them up like diamonds against that great and glorious Day.

They say that joy cometh in the morning. Given how I need it now, I hope that it’s all true.

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Of the three temptations Jesus faced in the Wilderness, I find that only one holds any sort of appeal for me. All the kingdoms of the world? No thanks. I have trouble enough keeping my apartment in order, much less all the mess that all the kingdoms might make. Throw myself down? Try the provision of God and His angels to keep my feet from falling? As if that doesn’t describe my daily struggle anyway. No, I already hurl myself into far too many scrapes, and then cry out to God to save me from the mess I’ve made. Ask my angels; surely they could tell the countless times they bear me up on their hands.

No, it’s the first temptation that has proven my plague all of my life. Turning stones to bread? Ah, now you’ve got my full attention.

I love food. A friend recently commented on how funny it is that food delights me. And it does–sometimes a little too much, for often a celebration involves a meal, fellowship requires tea or beer, and comfort sometimes comes from the ice cream aisle. At best I hope my delight in food has something to do with God long ago preparing me for His Table, both the one I eat at on Sundays and the Marriage Feast of the Lamb.

Because I’m hungry. Inside of me I find deep desires that all my life I have longed, and tried in vain, to fill. Lewis’s talk of longing resonates deep inside, that search for something never there. Pierce Pettis calls it “the presence of your absence.” I could describe the course of my life as one long string of looking for bread and finding a stone.

And try as I might, my alchemical powers turn up sorely lacking in the wilderness of this world. Try as I might, I just can’t wave my wand and make the stones feed me. You remember that old Brothers Grimm story “Stone Soup:” at the end of the meal, they take the stone from the pot and move on. And of course, the stone did not make the meal, but rather the reluctant generosity of many filled that pot with good things–the stone had nothing to do with the actual meal.

And so with me. How gracious of God to see me searching out stones and reminding me that what I really hunger for is bread, and that only by the devil’s hand can I in myself turn what I seek into what I need. He reminds me as well that His Word is really what I hunger for most. That in some small way like Christ I too have food to eat–doing the will of God as I find it in my daily life.

And doing that will reminds me too that daily bread will be provided. Manna from Heaven–just enough for today (it goes wormy-bad when I get all grabby and try to store some up). I remember that my response to hunger is not to make my feast, but to trust that the one who Himself feeds the birds of the air and the flowers of the fields is deeply concerned with giving me all I really need.

Yet it remains a temptation to me to try to turn stones to bread–to assume that I know what I need, to fear I’ve made the wrong decision. To doubt–to doubt my resolve or, more to the point, to doubt God’s steady hand of provision for my daily needs.

I’m tempted to fill my emptiness with the works of my own hands. But God’s message to me, however, is to wait, to stay hungry. Lewis describes Joy as “the ultimate law of loss.” My best work in this world is to want the next–“want,” in that oldest sense–to lack, to have not and hunger for.

My heart is the stone. God’s will for me is the bread. And to pray the perfect prayer, “Thy will be done,” is to simply say I’m still hungry and I have not what I’m hungry for until He moves His hand, filling my mouth, my life, with good things.

Amen

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So it happened again.  I sit there innocently enough in church, and when the sermon starts, my mind wanders to some related topic, and phrases kinda pop into my head and don’t leave.  Always obedient to the Muse, I take paper from the bulletin and start scribbling. I hope the preacher doesn’t mind; the sermon often lays down a bed of faithful words that gives irresistible rise to words of my own. I think of it as a kind of offering or surrender.

Not too long ago, I looked into the Psalms after a long night of trouble, wakefulness, and tears.  At church that morning, the Psalm portion also echoed the comfort I have found in that old Hebrew songbook.  And I kept thinking too about the sursum corda, that part of the service where we sing “Lift up your hearts to the Lord our God.”  It’s an act of will, of course, all this deliberate rejoicing that gives no quarter to however we may feel at the moment.

At the start of the sermon, the priest mentioned a hymn, “In Christ Alone.”  That was all it took.

He Hears Our Cries

Verse
Here I have wandered
Far from the Grace of God
Into the darkest
Night of my soul

And can You find me
Here where my feet have strayed
And somehow make me
Heart-safe and whole?

Chorus
He knows no darkness
He knows no night
He sees our sorrows
He hears our cries

We lift our hearts up
We lift our eyes
Strong now to save us
He hears our cries

Verse
So now I stumble
Seeking the Grace of God
Confess I cannot
Make my own way

Will You still help me
Though I keep falling down
Somehow restore me
Teach me to say

(Repeat Chorus)

Verse
So as You help us
Live in the Grace of God
So we will follow
So we shall stand

And as You love us
We will rejoice in You
We lay our lives down
Lift up our hands

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In Matt. 18, Jesus said (essentially), “Unless you turn into a little child, you’ll never get where you really want to go.”  Lewis said that when he became a man, one of the childish things he put away was the fear of appearing very child-like.  Yes.  Exactly.  And so here’s  little poem from a while ago for you to chew on while I work on some new things.

Perhaps the point of fairy tales

Perhaps
the point of
fairy tales
is not so much
in lulling little
ones to sleep;

maybe these stories safely
sing our dreams until
they whisper us awake
to fill us
with such strength and hope
that, story-like
we open wide our pages and
our eyes until
we make these dreams
come true.

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Have you ever wondered what God’s will for your life is?  Believe it or not, the Bible makes it perfectly clear–no need for tea leaves, oracles, or $20 psychic advisors.  But you may find it nothing like you expect.

A few years ago I discovered that the Bible spells out quite clearly what God wants of all of us.

With deceptive simplicity, I Thess. 5:18 says, “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  There it is.  God’s will in Christ simply requires that we say:

“Thank you.”

That’s it.

Sounds too easy, yeah?  Well, it almost is.

But please watch very carefully what the verse says (and doesn’t say).  First of all, you’ll find nothing in it at all about how to feel.  Which makes me glad, ’cause  honestly? the next time I hear someone tell me to ‘develop an attitude of gratitude,’ I’m gonna smack ’em.  Forty-odd years in, and much effort in the matter has left me with no idea how to change my attitude.  And this verse, which spells out the will of God, fortunately has nothing to do with my attitude.  It has nothing to do with FEELING thankful.

It DOES however have everything to do with the words of my mouth.  If I understand this passage correctly, God’s will means simply for me to say “thank you.”  Not to feel gratitude, but actually to say out loud those words.  Thank you.  Thank you.  Thank you.

Give it a try, even if, especially if you don’t feel it or even mean it.  Try it right now.

Did you?  Good.

Now, secondly, please notice that the verse tells us to give thanks  “in all circumstances.”  This clearly implies that the charge to say “thank you” does not depend in the slightest on the circumstances we face.  In other words, God commands us to give thanks for everything, even the ugly, difficult, sad things in life.

A word of caution.  I don’t believe that God intends to raise up for Himself a masochistic people who senselessly celebrate all of the awful things that occur.  I know all about the dangers of denialhooo boy do I. Nor do I think that the scripture perversely urges us to celebrate the evil in this world that befalls us and those we love.

Instead, I firmly feel that by commanding us to say “thank you” in order to follow His will, God subtly tries to teach us to see things from His perspective.  Behind that decidedly small phrase, a whole weight of glorious promises awaits us:

That He will never leave or forsake us.  That perfect peace will wrap us round.  That, circumstances decidedly notwithstanding, God yet has plans for us, plans to prosper us, to give us a hope and a future.  That He continues to rejoice over us with singing, not matter how dark the night or bitter the tears.  Than nothing, nothing, NOTHING can separate us from the love of God in Christ.  Nothing.  And oh, thank God for that.

To me, saying “thank you,” especially when I hardly feel or believe the words coming out of my mouth, serves me as a way to write a check with my lips that only the love of God can cash.  It helps me to create with my words a heart at least clean enough to acknowledge aloud that loving hands hold me, that Someone knows my name and my circumstance, and that He truly will make all things well, makes all manner of things most well.

I discovered one more helpful thing about this deceptively powerful command.  In Eph. 6:16, St. Paul exhorts us, “In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one.”

Did you catch it?  “In all circumstances,” again.  I looked up the Greek–it’s the same phrase.  And as I’ve tried to put into practice the habit of saying “thank you” out loud, I’ve come to see that doing so actually serves as a quite literal shield of faith; that meeting each temptation or setback or grief great or small with “thank you” serves me to turn aside a thousand little burning darts that dig into my soul.

“Thank you” forces me use my faith, makes me to say aloud that this is my Father’s world, and that I shall rest me in the thought.  It requires my implicit agreement that He made me, and that He hasn’t stopped the making.  That if I turn my eyes to the hills, I shall find help already on the way. That if with Milton “I only stand and wait,” then I shall find my strength renewed, I shall mount up, mount up, on wings like eagles.

So I suggest you try it.  Right now, and perhaps for the rest of the week.  Just keep meeting whatever comes your way with the murmur, “thank you.”  Make it a mantra or a prayer.  Whisper it softly when you have no leisure to do it louder.  Do it especially when you face grief or unexpected unpleasantness.  Perhaps you’ll not consider me glib for saying so, but I can tell you first-hand that it works.  In so many pains, whether old aches or brand-new bitterness that steal my breath (and hope) way, I find that it works.

He’s here. He neither slumbers or sleeps, He whose love watches over us and restores our souls.  Our times are ever in His hands.

Thank You.

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